Tamales are a huge part of Guatemalan celebrations. Whether its Christmas Eve or a birthday party, tamales are front and center. But I am not talking the corn husks tamales with their roots in Mexican heritage, I am talking tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Although there are many varieties of tamales, the most popular will always be the classic chicken tamale with a slightly spicy and nutty red sauce, the creamy smooth masa and the hidden salty bites of the olives and capers.
The first time I went to Guatemala was for Christmas in 2005. This was not only my initiation to the country of Guatemala, but also spending extended time with Carlos’ family, beyond the occasional dinner. Needless to say I was nervous the whole trip but made to feel so welcome. The first time I had Guatemalan tamales was on this trip in San Agustin, a small town about 3 hours outside of Guatemala City. This was where Carlos’ mother had grown up. We had traveled to San Agustin to visit family and to attend a Christmas party Carlos’ mom threw for what seemed like every kid in the town. The whole family was involved in the festivities, handing out toys, games, dolls, even camp stoves (to some of the mothers, not the kids). Since this was a celebration, tamales were involved. I sat outside in the beautiful Guatemalan sun eating my tamale that their cousin Lis had brought to me, along with chocolate (hot chocolate). Yes even though it was well in the 80s we were drinking hot chocolate. The whole experience was overwhelming. here I am sitting in a small town in a foreign country I had never been to before eating the most delicious food. That was the beginning of a true love story between myself and the food of Guatemala. Who would of thought that that one tamale five years ago would have started it all?
A few days later on Christmas Eve back in Guatemala City, we (there were about 20 of us) sat down to the traditional Christmas Eve meal of tamales and ponche de navidad. I ended up sitting across from “the twins”, who spent the whole meal trying to get me to eat the banana leaf that the tamale was wrapped in. Now I may be a gringo and my spanish may be horrible, well non existent at this point, but I knew not to eat the banana leaf. Nice try!
Since that first trip we have eaten tamales numerous times, both in Guatemala and here in the USA. Its a birthday party! Tamales. Its Christmas Eve! Tamales. Since tamales are time consuming, not hard to make, just time consuming, they are saved for special occasions. They are a true labor of love and oh so worth it! My recipe that I have posted here is actually based on one that Carlos’ grandmother (Mama Neca) gave to me. I have tweaked it here and there, to adjust it to “American ways”, but you still get the same terrific flavor. I originally started off using bone in chicken legs, but cutting them up into pieces were more problem then they were worth. So I decided to try using chicken wings. They are small enough that they are easy to cut up with cooking shears before cooking, plus you consistently get the same size piece of chicken in your tamale.
One of my favorite facts about tamales has to do with proper etiquette. You are only allowed one tamale on a plate at a time. If you want two, you need to eat the first one and then go back and get the second one. You will offend everyone if you proceed to place two tamales on your plate.
Recipe: Mama Neca’s Tamales
Summary: These tamales are traditionally served Christmas Eve and for special occasions.
- Unroll the banana leaves and cut into twelve 12 inch sections, discarding the narrow ends of the leaves. Trim the tough brown edge of the leaves. Make 12 sheets of aluminum foil slightly larger than the banana leaves, and alternate with banana leaf on top of foil. If you find the banana leaves to be tough and ripping easily just wrap them in a damp towel and place in the microwave for 30 seconds until they are warmed through and pliable.
- Take ¾ cup of masa and place in the center of the leaf.
- Place one piece of chicken in the middle of the masa and press it into the masa.
- Spoon 3 tablespoons of the sauce over the chicken.
- Place a strip of red pepper (two total) on each long side of the masa, an olive (two total) on each short side of the masa and 6 capers on top of the sauce.
- Fold the long sides of the banana leaf up and over the tamale, pulling it tight but gently, fold the ends in, pulling tightly yet gently, making a nice tight green package. Roll the long sides of the foil up and seal tightly. Roll the ends up so that you have a tight sealed package.
- Stack wrapped tamales in a large pot and gently fill with water to within two inches of the top. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce to medium low and simmer for 1 to 11/2 hours. Check the tamales at the hour mark, by taking a tamale out and opening it up. The masa should be firm to the touch when a bite is pulled off with a fork. If the masa is still somewhat soft, simmer for another 30 minutes. Inevitably some water will get in, but this does not affect the integrity of the tamale. Just drain well over the pot and the place on a clean kitchen towel. Unwrap the foil from around the tamale, and roll it under.Then open up the banana leaf and place the tamale foil and all on a plate and serve with a slice or two of lime for an acidic contrast and a nice crusty roll.
- Notes: It’s easiest to assemble tamales if you set up and assembly line in the following order: banana leaves/foil in front, masa, chicken, sauce, red peppers, olives, capers lined up behind.
- Cook all tamales immediately then reheat in simmering water for 10-15 minutes until heated through.
Preparation time: 2 hour(s)
Cooking time: 15 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 12
My rating 5 stars: ★★★★★ 1 review(s)